If you only watched movies or documentaries about it, it would seem that most of the combat in the Vietnam War occurred in rural areas thick with trees and undergrowth, or rice fields and the small villages near them.
But a new memoir, written by Royal Hettling of Minneota, Minn., with additional
contributions from some of the men he served with, highlights a different Vietnam experience. A different experience in a different combat zone, which, nevertheless, was still often deadly and dangerous — and forever shaped the life, and outlook on life, of Hettling, who was 19 at the time.
The book was released this weekend. Order here:
The book is titled Ten: Five-Five: Boots-on-the-Ground True Stories of a Midwestern Boy and Fellow Handlers Who Served in the Vietnam War. Hettling served in the 483rd Security Police Squadron’s K-9 Unit in 1970-71. It is a fund-raiser for the Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Minneota.
Hettling and others in the squadron were patrol dog handlers, much like K-9 police officers today, but more frequently in intense circumstances. They patrolled a fuel and munitions depot at an Air Force Base at Cam Ranh Bay along the southeastern coast of Vietnam. Their job was to work with observation-tower spotters to prevent Viet Cong guerrilla soldiers from penetrating the base and trying to blow up the large fuel tanks and bombs stored there. If the Viet Cong did get in, either by water or through the trees, it was up to the K-9 handlers to find them and stop them: kill or capture them, in other words. Ten: Five-Five was a radio code used by the handlers, which they called in to the command center when their dogs saw or sensed an apparent threat.
It is a well-written and researched book, Hettling’s own experiences backed up by research by the book’s editor, Minneota native Dana Miller, and some of the other soldiers. The research provides more information on specific incidents and overall context on Cam Ranh Bay’s importance as a base, and its proximity to a Vietnamese village — and context of the war during the time Hettling was there.
On several occasions, Hettling and others engaged in combat with the Viet Cong soldiers — small arms firefights usually. One time, he flushed out Viet Cong spies drifting near shore in a sampan by firing rocket-propelled grenades across the boat. He also came under artillery fire as the Viet Cong shelled the base from positions outside its perimeter.
Men die in this book, sometimes they are no more than children — teenaged soldiers amped up on drugs, sent in by Viet Cong at night to try to fix explosive charges to fuel tanks. Men come close to dying in this book, Hettling included.
There is bravery. U.S. soldiers sometimes rushed in on the heels of saboteurs, yanked explosives off the fuel tanks and heaved them away before they could explode. How, I once asked Hettling, could someone do that? What if the explosives had blown up in their hands, killing them? His response: In the heat of combat, you don’t think about what could happen. You think about what you need to do. And do it.
There is camaraderie. Lifelong friendships were formed among the men in the 483rd. There is war-time humor, homesickness, holiday parties, and close bonds formed between handlers and their dogs. (Hettling worked with a dog named Thunder, each of them trusting his life to the other night after night.)
There is also some coming of age, as Hettling, the Minnesota farm boy, discusses geopolitics with Vietnamese civilians and finds himself wondering about the purpose of the war; along with his reflections on life after battles. And there are moments of remarkable human decency amid all the fighting.
The book is divided into short, easy-to-digest chapters, and supplemented with a strong array of photos — original photos of Hettling and his fellow soldiers at Cam Ranh Bay, photos of the aftermath of battles, and a well-done then-and-now photo section. The book a contains useful, informative glossary, appendixes and documents (including reproducing original paperwork for Hettling’s tour of duty). There are also two sections about the commanding officer at Cam Ranh Bay, a colonel with his own amazing story of World War II heroics.
In short, buy the book because it is a good read and an important addition to our understanding of the Vietnam War. It is also a strong addition to the literary field of southwest Minnesota, a region, of course, rich in writing heritage.
But here’s another reason to buy the book: all proceeds from the sale of the book go toward the Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Minneota, operated by Royal Hettling and his brother Charlie. A remarkable museum with interpretive displays, telling multiple perspectives of the war. It had to move into a new building last year and the brothers continue to seek funding to help with the transition.